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Epilepsy : Symptoms & Signs, Diagnosis & Tests

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Symptoms & Signs

The severity of symptoms can vary greatly, from simple staring spells to loss of consciousness and violent convulsions. For most people with epilepsy, each seizure is similar to previous ones. The type of seizure a person has depends on a variety of things, such as the part of the brain affected and the underlying cause of the seizure.

An aura consisting of a strange sensation (such as tingling, smelling an odor that isn’t actually there, or emotional changes) occurs in some people prior to each seizure.

For a detailed description of the symptoms associated with a specific type of seizure, see:

  • Absence (petit mal) seizure
  • Generalized tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizure
  • Partial (focal) seizure

Diagnosis & Tests

A physical examination (including a detailed neurologic examination) may be normal, or it may show abnormal brain function related to specific areas of the brain.

Persons with epilepsy will often have abnormal electrical activity seen on an electroencephalograph (EEG). (An EEG is a reading of the electrical activity in the brain.) In some cases, the test may show where in the brain the seizures start. EEGs can often be normal in between seizures, so it may be necessary to perform a longer test.

Various blood tests and other tests to rule out temporary and reversible causes of seizures, may include:

  • Blood chemistry
  • Blood sugar
  • CBC (complete blood count)
  • CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) analysis
  • Kidney function tests
  • Liver function tests
  • Tests for infectious diseases

Tests for the cause and location of the problem may include:

  • EEG
  • Head CT or MRI scan
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap)


Review Date : 3/29/2009
Reviewed By : Reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc., and David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Previously reviewed by Daniel B. Hoch, PhD, MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School, Department of Neurology, Massachusetts General Hospital. (6/19/08)

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